KAY FRANCIS: “One Way Passage,” A Tragedy-in-Miniature

[This is the second illustrated essay on the work of Kay Francis; the first being an overview, “The Fascinating Miss Francis” (https://violdam6.wordpress.com/2011/04/24/the-fascinating-miss-francis-one-phase-2/).  The series continues with this installment featuring the classic soap operetta, a milestone of American film melodrama, the tragedy-in-miniature, “One Way Passage,” from Warner Brothers in 1932, directed by Tay Garnett,  photographed by Robert Kurrle, screenplay by Wilson Mizner and Joseph Jackson, based on a story by Robert Lord, and starring Kay Francis, William Powell, Aline MacMahon, Warren Hymer and Frank McHugh.]

The words “classic” and “movie” together have meaning only if they are used to define a particular style of film created and then developed to its peak of cinematic possibility.  If a film style of early 1930’s Hollywood emerged and became classic in form, it was one in which filmmakers were no longer just comfortable with sound, but fluent in it, learning its expressive possibilities and the ways it could be used in conjunction with the visual elements to create a kind of cinematic shorthand (imagine, for example, an interior scene where we hear a car pull up outside and its doors slam shut one after the other — we expect something to happen without seeing either the car or the other persons).  The best of these films achieve “classicism” when they combine the technical advances and the artistic innovation fostered by the new technology with the careful composition and expressive photography of silent film.

Within that style, there exists a more nakedly emotional form, something I’ll refer to as “film melodrama,” after its 19th and early 20th century theatrical counterpart.  It is a form that encompasses any recognized film “genre,” be it gangster or crime film, period epic, war film or, more obviously, the kind of film referred to as “soap opera,” “women’s pictures,” “weepies,” films that we call “sentimental” as if sentimentality is a weakenss, a flaw or a fault.

One of the best examples of  film melodrama, with a brisk pace typical of the best of early sound film (but unusual for a love story in any era), rapid advancement of plot and character development — without loss of detail, coherence and dramatic punch, is “One Way Passage.”  It is emotionally full, which has caused the jaded and closed-of-heart to label it as corn-syrupy and sentimental.   Since the world of art criticism and academia are largely populated by those for whom art is a dish best served cold (and unknowable by the masses and the non-intellectual), it is rarely if ever mentioned as being among the important works of its time, the early sound period, the early years of the Depression, 1930s Hollywood just prior to the introduction of the censorial Production Code.  It is a flawed film (as are many outstanding films), but unlike many flawed films which flounder in their second half or final act, this film does the exact opposite — it had me shaking my head in disbelief when I first saw the sequence preceding the final shot (and again even more so when I isolated the still frames in preparation for this piece).  Watch it for yourself.  But first read this brief sketch, or just look at the still frames (if you fear spoilers, don’t read the end or look at the last half dozen sets of frames).

“One Way Passage” is a milestone of minimalist melodrama in which every shot counts or at least adds to the accumulation of detail without wasting a minute (except Frank McHugh’s drunken mirror-image scene halfway through).  It builds rapidly within the short format of the film to draw and absorb the viewer to the point where lines of dialogue clichéd even in 1932 can still seem appropriate, and not cringe-worthy.

The screenplay is ripe with the cynicism of the early 1930’s juxtaposed with one line emotional pronouncements that would indeed seem obvious to “sophisticated” viewers, especially those in later, even more cynical times.  But if it pulls back from the frank sexuality and double entendres of much of pre-code Hollywood film, it is appropriate.  The film is about two people who embark on a voyage and a serious love that neither of them should start, and one that cannot be fulfilled — at least not in a typical way.  It is not a casual affair, ships passing in the night, but rather one ship passing through time with two souls who are soon to be parted — but who cannot be separated for eternity.

Dan is a convicted murderer who escaped after being sentenced to hang, and a San Francisco Detective, Steve Burke, has tracked him down and takes him aboard a ship in Hong Kong, about to sail for San Francisco, with a stop at Honolulu.  Joan is a young socialite with a bad heart, an essentially terminal condition.  She is accompanied by her doctor who warns her against virtually any activity that might make her already hopeless plight almost bearable.  Naturally she encounters Dan in a Hong Kong bar, and after he is arrested and cuffed, he will be (unknown to Joan) joining her on the boat back across the Pacific to the States.

An interesting twist for jaded audiences of then, and now, is that both protagonists are essentially pure of heart (outside of one homicide and a heart condition, of course).  Joan’s serious health condition makes her physically weary and cynical; she is wealthy (she travels with her private physician and an extensive wardrobe), yet is not overly showy nor unbearably sophisticated; she is a sweet, kind and intelligent woman one could easily imagine falling in love with.  Dan is not a con man, wise-guy, gigolo, fallen angel or reformed sinner.  He is simply a decent man who must pay the ultimate penalty “for croaking the dirtiest heel who ever lived,” according to his crooked acquaintances, Skippy the larcenous drunk and Barrelhouse Betty the con-artist hooker.  And Betty describes him best to us: “He’s got everything — strength, youth, courage — everything that makes life fit to live.”  The story begins in a nameless waterfront Hong Kong “international” bar:

"One Way Passage" opens in the Port of Hong Kong with a tracking shot down a barroom, then hangs a left to the sound of a trio of singers. As they croon a sentimental American tune, a woman whispers into the ear of one, who breaks his vocal long enought to answer in a disarmingly feminine voice, "first door to your left, dearie."
A return to the bar in a tracking shot establishes its "international" character . . . leading to . . .
. . . a crusty expatriate American bar-keep (played by "Turkey Mike" Donlin, a turn-of-the century baseball star in an uncredited part) and his special drink, a "Paradise Cocktail" . . . with an extra twist: "I haven't made one of these since the Fourth of July! . . . Believe me, friend, I wouldn't go through all this trouble for any of these foreigners."
. . . a "Paradise Cocktail" that Dan (William Powell), his American customer, hardly gets to taste . . .

Joan, "I'm so sorry!" Dan, "I'm so glad ! . . . there's still a few drops left anyway . . ."
After spilled drinks, "the last drops . . . they're the most precious," then introductions and a toast, "hale and farewell!" "That seems a bit ruthless." . . . (and after hearing a group of Germans in the background noise) . . . "Auf wiedersein!"
Joan follows Dan's ritual breaking of the cocktail glass, and he turns down an introduction to her friends. They shake hands and Joan says, "Let's trust luck will come again."

And the moment becomes intense . . . and awkward . . .
She turns away toward her friends, he half-smiles ruefully with his dark secret no one yet in the film or the audience knows; and Joan with her own (as yet unspoken) sadness seems to fear a new relationship . . . but still . . . disappointed that he's gone . . .
One of her friends asks, "Seen him long?" "Ever so long." "Where?" "I . . . I can't quite remember." "Better skip a few cocktails, darling!"
. then she spies him leaving and they wave "goodbye" . . . for now.
Then a gun in his side, a brief losing struggle and he is subdued, his secret beginning to unravel . . .

How is it that a film can take its time to carefully establish characters and important elements — recurring themes and various motifs that will serve purposes both symbolic and direct, brightly alive and comic while encompassing death, dark and tragic — yet barely exceed 65 minutes?

There is a purity about the construction, almost nothing extraneous, nothing to distract, no loud music, no cursing (in a bar filled with sailors, at that), no irrelevant pop-culture references to show how cool the filmmakers (or the characters) are.  No hard sell.  Just the honest reactions of the individuals undiluted by anything unrelated directly to them, their story.  We thus get inside them and have in a very brief time, a keen sense of what it is like to be them in those “intimate” moments in a very public place that by its nature would normally preclude intimacy.  A setting in which a less competent filmmaker, writer or actor would be tempted to exploit for many other effects outside of the core story element — intense reaction of physical love of (not necessarily “at“) first sight — and then we care enough to wait and watch because we want to know if this feeling of first sight can continue with the second — and so we continue to watch and to care.

San Francisco Det. Steve Burke (Warren Hymer), "Boik" in his native NYC tongue, having cuffed Dan, strolls arm in arm through the side streets of Hong Kong, then they encounter an old acquaintance of Dan's, the larcenous lush, Skippy (Frank McHugh).
A hot Hong Kong morning dawns brightly on the S.S. Maloa, taking Dan and Detective Burke to (eventually) San Francisco. But Dan has other ideas. After learning Burke can't swim, and knowing where he hides the key to the handcuffs, Dan unlatches the gate and both plunge into the harbor, where Dan manages to get the key and uncuff, but can't let Steve drown, so in saving the Detective's life, he returns to "condemnation" and the ship. One upside: Steve, grateful to Dan, allows him to roam the ship unfettered once they leave port. After all, he can't really go anywhere out on the Pacific.
. . . and Joan witnesses the event from topside . . .
Joan's doctor's orders: "No more parties, no more cigarettes, no more dancing and NO MORE COCKTAILS!" Joan, depressed, "It's funny how we cling to life even after it's worthless," overhears Dan in conversation out on the deck describing his search for a beautiful dark-haired woman named Joan he met last night. She immediately feels much better and, defying her doctor (Fred Burton), springs into action . . .
. . . and Joan heads straight for the ship's bar where Dan has been describing the features of this woman he's searching for. As he spies her before Dan, the bartender (Roscoe Karns) mixes the same drink for her so that they won't waste a second waiting for a toast when Joan surprises him . . .
"Your luck's come back." "This time in full glasses."
Dan proposes the toast, "Health!" . . . which Joan politely changes: "Luck!"
. . . and this time Joan initiates the ritual of broken cocktail glasses.
In the first of an almost endless series of incredibly composed and photographed scenes (as directly descended from the "tableaux" of art and stage, and of course the silent film of Griffith and many others), Joan stares into the sunset, "The day knows how to go out -- in a blaze of glory!"
"Forgive me if I'm going 'poetic' on you, but life is wonderful, Dan!" (Dan) "And its best moment is when we find it out."
The next evening, Dan's acquaintances Skippy and "Barrelhouse" Betty (Aline MacMahon), the con-artist/hooker who is traveling as "La Comtesse Bettina de Barilhaus," spy Dan and Joan out on the deck and discuss Dan's sad story. Betty reveals that Dan got her out of a tough jam in Singapore: "He took a long chance for me. I certainly wish I could pay him back the same way."
Betty: "Look. He's got everything -- strength, youth, courage -- everything that makes life fit to live. He's just a ghost now." Then seeing him in a romantic moment with Joan, "Death ain't tough enough -- he's gotta fall in love." Neither is yet aware of Joan's back-story.

"The world and time seem somewhere else."
But "the world and time" come back the next day as Det. Burke reminds Dan that although he can roam the ship "uncuffed" he's hardly free. But the sight of Joan quickly dispels unpleasant thoughts . . .
. . . And later that evening, they dance without care . . . at first.
But Joan falters as they dance and becomes ill . . .
. . . and for a moment she feints in his arms (for the first time) . . .
Joan recovers her poise and attempts to make light of it . . .
But Dan, sensing something more serious, sets her aside in a quiet space, inconspicuous, to rest for a few moments.

She recovers sufficiently for a romantic moment . . .
By the end of the evening she seems fine, and after a polite kiss at her door, she bids Dan goodnight.
Dan is disappointed, but only mildly -- This may be a "pre-code" film, but it is also an old-fashioned romance -- after all, he has yet to buy her dinner . . . (though in his defense, as a convicted murder who had been on the run, he's not likely to have much change in his pockets).
As the S.S. Maloa steams toward mid-ocean and its stop-over at Honolulu, Dan begins to plot his escape and writes a goodbye note to leave for Joan. Det. Burke hears Joan talk about a car trip with Dan on the island and, realizing the potential for escape, decides to place Dan in the ship's brig for the duration of the voyage.
But Betty, finding a way to pay back Dan for past favors, is able to snatch the keys to the brig from Burke who, not knowing her past record, has a serious crush on "La Comtesse de Barilhaus," and with the aid of Skippy, they are able to spring Dan from the brig.
Docked at the port of Honolulu, Joan waits pensively for Dan to meet her so they can begin their island car trip.
Despite his travails with Det. Burke and the brig, Dan does not disappoint her . . .

While Dan scans the horizon for any sign of his captor or the law, Joan gets a rueful and unapproving look from her doctor -- but for her at this moment, "the world and time" are once again far away . . .
During their Hawaii island excursion, Dan stops to arrange his escape, and pays some old contacts (with money given him by Betty), for an escape via a cargo ship "ready to go as soon as you step onboard." He returns to Joan and the car with a huge flower lei as a present.

The following series of 11 sets of still frames (with two frames each) is among the most impressively photographed and staged love scenes in American film history, rivaling those of Garbo and Gilbert in “Flesh and the Devil” for sheer romance, and Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in “Now, Voyager,” for Best Use of Cigarettes As Romantic Prop.

But “the world and time” begin to catch up with Joan and Dan.  As they leave their secluded trysting place and head back toward port Dan, who is to leave shortly on his pre-arranged escape, begins to tell Joan the truth about himself.

Before Dan can even get to the worst part of his story, Joan passes out.
Observing from shipboard are his "aid" Betty, and of course Det. Burke who, having been unaware Dan was gone, is stunned at his return -- but soon understands the reason . . .
Though weakened, her doctor tells Dan that she'll survive this episode . . . but not another.
Dan, not wanting to take further chances with Joan's condition decides to remove the farewell note he had placed in her cabin -- while Det. Burke watches, unnoticed . . .
. . . but not unmoved: "Poor guy." Betty:"What did you say?" Steve: "Oh I didn't say nothin' . . ."
As the S.S. Maloa approaches the port of San Francisco (seen in the dissolve in the first frame at left), Dan's thoughts and eyes fall upon the island prison Alcatraz and he can't help but visualize his fate (reflected in his face in another dissolve, below).

Det. Steve gets a message that "La Comtesse" is really "Barrelhouse Betty," but as she admits to him that she is not who she pretended to be, but that she wants nothing more than to marry a man with a farm, Steve (who has retirement plans that include chicken farming) discards the note, in favor of love.

Dan and Joan have one last toast aboard ship; he knows it will be their last but cannot allow her to know the truth in her condition, and if Joan suspects it, she and time and the world are still far away. They agree to meet at "Agua Caliente" for New Year's Eve, in two months.

The bartender sheds tears not for the lovers, but for two more glasses, smashed.

Steve cuffs Dan in preparation for disembarking. A ship steward overhears and realizes Dan is a convicted murderer . . . while Joan checks her watch, expecting to meet Dan and leave the ship together.
But Joan, sensing something is wrong, cannot wait. She goes to Dan's cabin.
However, Dan has already left, with Burke. Joan, upon reaching his cabin and finding him gone, is told by the steward that the man she is looking for is an escaped murderer who was handcuffed and taken away by a Detective. Joan is devastated, yet unbelieving.

As Joan searches the ship corridors, Dan and Steve prepare to disembark . . .
In among the throng leaving the ship -- a series of shots done brilliantly, a tracking camera weaving through the crowd (which today would be done with a hand-held camera), Joan finally sees Dan and rushes to him.

A final kiss . . .

. . . then a tearful, but somehow still happy, goodbye for now . . .

Dan's face is that of a condemned man soon to die . . . Joan's tearful smile . . . then dissolves . . .

In one of the more remarkable scenes of death in an American film of its — or any — era, Joan and her moment of dying dissolve into a New Year’s Eve balloon:

Their planned meeting, at Agua Caliente, New Year’s Eve, two months later.  As the balloon is burst by a silhouetted hand with cigarette, a dreary party unfolds before the camera in a tracking shot that extends around the floor . . .

. . . to the corner of the bar where a solitary drinker, the happy-go-lucky larcenous lush, Skippy, is found . . .

and in a devastating shot, the camera circles around the corner of the bar with a barely recognizable Skippy as its focal point, completely, utterly alone.

As the camera passes him, we see two bored bartenders wiping their glasses, when they hear the sound of crystal glass, breaking behind them.  After one scolds the other to “watch your elbows,”  they turn around to see . . .

. . . broken glasses, seemingly unattended, dissolving before their eyes.

There are times when popular culture produces work that transcends the “pop” and becomes deeply significant within that culture.  At its best it tells us — convinces us — that this is something important that we all share, deeply but often unknowingly until the product, the “object” that fulfills the function of art, gives us an example of that shared human existence.  It is the very definition of art.  It does not have to be epic in scope, obsessive in detail or in strict adherence to nature.   It can be very small, but true.  Truth in miniature, inside a locket that we rarely open, but when we do, it is as if we’ve never stopped looking or thinking — its impact is once again immediate, visceral and stays with us at least as long as our mortal senses allow.  Specific to a time, yet timeless.

12 thoughts on “KAY FRANCIS: “One Way Passage,” A Tragedy-in-Miniature

  1. just saw the film for the first time…it had an immediate impact on me in a timeless way…i can’t possibly add what hasn’t already been mentioned above but i would like to say one thing…i haven’t seen many films where the two leads expressed so much in their eyes…a movie that is more than the sum of its parts.

    1. Good point — or should I say “points.” Filmmakers (and filmgoers for that matter) need to remember that less is often more; great film acting is physical more than verbal, and that silence is as effective at conveying strong emotion as is curses screamed at 90dB. Thank you for your comments.

  2. Me again. I liked this movie so much, I bought it and have viewed it again. I have also seen “Trouble in Paradise” and “Jewel Thief” on TCM. Kay Francis was a very good actress. I knew of her but wasn’t aware of any of her films. There is a vulnerability about her in “One Way Passage”. She wore her heart on her sleeve in this film while William Powell gives a very nuanced performance which plays off of her role very well. I am only now realizing the damage that the “Hays Code” inflicted on the film industry. How many films were we robbed of? Thanks for this platform, it is needed. There is a metaphysical feel to One Way Passage which is rarely seen in any film.

  3. A rare Jem of a movie, Hollywood in the 1930’s at its best. It touches something deep inside us that is universal to the human spirit. It grabs you at the start and leaves you full of emotion at the end. It’s what quality film making is all about.

  4. This film is everything “Ghost” wanted to be, but couldn’t quite achieve. It’s no wonder that in recent years, people are rediscovering this as one of the most poignant romances ever made, and one of the highlights of the careers of both Powell and Francis. They never teamed in a movie again (this was their sixth collaboration); that was primarily because Powell soon moved to MGM, while Francis remained at Warners, but one senses both knew there was no way they could improve on this.

    Wrote about this at my site the other day as a prelude to TCM’s Kay Francis day on “Summer Under The Stars”: http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/536523.html

  5. Hello everyone, This tribute to ONE WAY PASSAGE is simply wonderful. I sure hope this is allowed, this posting! Here goes. The film was directed by my father, Tay Garnett. Now I’m on a mission to put his wonderful memoir back in print. (My father died in 1977.) The sections about ONE WAY PASSAGE, how it almost didn’t happen (and how Dad should have won an Oscar for Original Story) is in that book. You can find more info on what I’m doing to get it back in print, as well as a gallery of old photos from Dad’s career, at http://www.lightyourtorches.com
    Again, if I’m violating any rules by posting this, I’ll delete immediately.
    Best to you all, and many thanks.
    Tiela Garnett

  6. On the contrary, your comments are more than welcome. Thank YOU for the compliment. I think it is wonderful that you are working on this project on behalf of your father. I knew that your father was a respected director, admired by people like Truffaut, but I hadn’t really taken a close look at his filmography, which is amazing! Just a short list of people he worked for, with or directed: Mack Sennett, Thomas Ince, Hal Roach, Stan Laurel, Renee Adoree, ZaSu Pitts, Thelma Todd, Leni Riefenstahl, Gibson Gowland, Betty Compson, Pat O’Brien, Kay Francis, William Powell, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Wallace Beery, Loretta Young, David Niven, Joan Bennett, Billie Burke, Warner Baxter, Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Marlene Dietrich, Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Greer Garson, Donald Crisp, Lionel Barrymore, John Garfield and Lana Turner, Alan Ladd, Bing Crosby (even if they didn’t get along!), Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan; great cinematographers: Rudolph Mate, Ray Rennahan, Joseph Ruttenberg, George Diskant, the list goes on . . .

    Is this project an “update” of your father’s original memoir published in 1973? You have so many fantastic photos, especially the candid set photos, were they included in the original edition? If not, they should be, along with the fine forwards and intro. If I can be of meager assistance in at least “getting the word out” among the “classic movie” community about your father and this book, I’ll be more than happy to do so. Thanks again for your comments.

    1. Hi Gene,

      Thank you so much for your warm response!

      My project is not so much an “update” of my father’s memoir as it is a continuation. I wrote my own story of growing up with him (he was not only my father, but my best friend) and with my mother, actress Mari Aldon. The plan is to republish his memoir (with perhaps some minor changes) along with my own, in a single volume.

      You can hear me talk about the project here:

      Anything you can do, as you put it, to “get the word out among the classic movie community” would be greatly appreciated! Once again, thank you for this tribute to my father – I’ve always considered “One Way Passage” one of his finest films; it’s the one that earned him the label “transcendentalist” which he certainly was.

      Tiela Garnett

  7. I’m not a film critic nor an author but a film buff if thats the correct word. What I took from this extrodinary film is it’s haunting music. It’s repeated at critical parts in the storyline and it’s melody reads like a great written script. Depending how sentimental you are , I can guarantee you will get misty eyed or even drop a tear. This is powerful film stuff and deserves to be held in your film library.

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